Property owners along a portion of Academy Street behind Wendell Elementary School got an unpleasant surprise when they attended a meeting with Wake County Public School System officials earlier this month and learned that preliminary proposals for a new Wendell Elementary School called for those residents to sell their property to the school system.
The plans presented during that Oct. 3 meeting included three options for rebuilding Wendell Elementary School. Two of the options called for tearing down the existing school and rebuilding the school on the current site. The only difference on those two plans is that one calls for the demolition of the old gymnasium and the auditorium, while the other plan would leave those buildings in place. The third option called for constructing the new school on Thompson Field, which is also owned by WCPSS and is considered part of the Wendell Elementary School campus.
All three plans would require at least four property owners to give up their property. And all three options would also call for construction of a new street along the southern portion of Thompson Field to provide space for student drop off.
School system officials favored the plan that would build a new school on Thompson Field. That would allow the school system to avoid having to move students from the current site during construction. There are no other schools planned for construction in eastern Wake County where the students could be housed during the renovations at the existing site. Setting up a mobile school campus isn’t cost effective if it’s only used for construction of one new school.
Only one of the affected property owners actually attended the meeting, but two town commissioners and Mayor Ginna Gray attended and were surprised to learn that the plans would require the property owners to give up their homes.
One of those homes is owned by Town Commissioner Ben Carroll. Another property is owned by Commissioner David Myrick’s father-in-law.
Both Myrick and Carroll say that while they don’t want to see those properties – some of which are historic – sold to the school system and torn down, the school system’s plan really doesn’t solve the major problem, which is traffic congestion along Wendell Boulevard. Myrick attended the meeting with school officials, but Carroll did not.
“I was surprised to hear that the school (system) would even consider expanding that school at that location considering the level of traffic we see, rather than going just outside of town or to some of the other lots that are available,” Myrick said.
School system officials balked at the idea of looking at other sites, saying that would make the project too expensive. “Their answer to that was to ask us if the town would be willing to put up the extra $8 million that would cost. That was when the veins in the side of my neck started bulging,” said Commissioner Jason Joyner.
He said he left the meeting feeling as if school officials had laid down an ultimatum, rather than seeking the property owners’ cooperation.
Early in the process
“We asked them what would happen if the property owners didn’t want to sell and they said they would just take the property,” Joyner said. “The part that really got under my skin was when they said they were going to take this to their facilities committee on Oct. 12. It was the first time anyone had heard about it.”
The plans to build a larger elementary school have been in the works for some time, but there is currently no funding for the project. That would have to come from a future bond issue. Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton, who had the item removed from the Oct. 12 facilities committee agenda, said he thought there was some misunderstanding on the part of property owners about what the school system staff hoped to accomplish with the meeting.
“They thought they were going to a meeting to gauge the property owners’ interest in selling their land to the school system and they were met with a lot of hard opposition to what they were proposing,” Benton said.
He also said the plans were only exploratory at this point. “I think the staff is doing what we asked them to do – to do their homework and study all the options before they bring something to us,” Benton said.
If the school system were to move ahead with plans to build a new school on Thompson Field, that would also displace the Wendell Rams football and cheerleading programs. Len Boykin, the president of the Wendell Sports Booster Club, which rents the field and maintains it year-round, said he had heard talk of plans to build a new elementary school a few years ago, but had not been contacted about the most recent discussions.
“I think there would be about 200 kids in Wendell who would be mighty upset to see that field go away,” Boykin said.
Benton and Joyner both say the kerfuffle over the plans will result in one good outcome. Joyner invited school board members to participate in a joint meeting with the Wendell Town Board to talk about future school system needs in the area. Benton said the school system will likely take them up on that offer.